Coronavirus: Keir Starmer attacks Boris Johnson for calling UK’s handling of crisis a ‘success’
Labour leader tells Commons that 27,000-plus death toll is ‘truly dreadful’
Keir Starmer has slammed prime minister Boris Johnson for claiming the government’s handling of coronavirus had been a “success”, warning that the UK in fact appeared to be heading for the worst national death toll in Europe.
The Labour leader went on the attack at prime minister’s questions in the Commons, telling MPs that the latest figures showing more than 27,000 deaths were “truly dreadful”.
First secretary of state Dominic Raab – standing in for the prime minister after Mr Johnson’s child was born this morning – insisted it was “far too early” to make international comparisons or to reveal details of how and when the government believes it will be possible to move the UK out of lockdown.
But he notably did not repeat Mr Johnson’s claim, in his statement at Downing Street on Monday, that “there will be many people looking now at our apparent success” in dealing with the outbreak.
Warning that the soaring death figures released on Tuesday were “probably an underestimate”, Sir Keir said: “On Monday, the prime minister said in his short speech that many were looking at our apparent success in the United Kingdom. Does the first secretary agree with me that far from success, these latest figures are truly dreadful?”
Sir Keir said that the government’s chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance had said on 17 March that keeping the total UK death toll from Covid-19 below 20,000 would represent a “good outcome”, but that this figure had already been far outstripped, with official statistics showing that at least 27,241 lives have been lost.
Deaths in care homes “appear to have been rising even while hospital deaths have been falling”, amid “real anxiety” in the social care sector about the availability of coronavirus testing and protective equipment, he said.
“We’re clearly already way above that number and we’re only part way through this crisis,” said the Labour leader on his second PMQs outing. “And we’re possibly on track to have one of the worst death rates in Europe.”
Mr Raab responded: “I’m going to disagree with him. It is far too early to make international comparisons. If they are to be done, they should be done on a per capita basis.
“I think we’re already seeing that there are different ways that deaths are measured, not just in the UK in the different settings, but across Europe and across the world.”
Mr Raab acknowledged “challenges” in care homes which he blamed on the “decentralised” nature of the sector as well as the difficulty in exercising control over movements in and out of premises.
“It is the single biggest challenge in terms of reducing transmission,” he said. “It is a challenge that we must grip and we can grip to make sure we can get the numbers down in care homes as we’ve seen in hospitals and as we’ve seen in the country at large.”
Sir Keir called on Mr Raab to explain why he said in a TV interview on Sunday that deaths in care homes were falling in line with hospitals – a claim which the Labour leader said “doesn’t appear to be borne out by the figures”.
Mr Raab denied he was “sugar-coating” the issue but failed to stand by his claim, telling Sir Keir: “There are some positive signs, but I think they are frankly within the margin of error.”
In an exchange that for the second week took place in a virtually empty chamber, with most MPs taking part via video link, Mr Raab poured cold water on any prospect of an immediate easing of the lockdown at what he said was “a delicate and dangerous moment”.
Mr Johnson sparked speculation over an imminent rollback of social distancing rules by saying on Monday that he aimed to set out “in a few days” how the government would “refine the economic and social restrictions”.
But Mr Raab told MPs: “I think we do need to wait until we’ve got further evidence from Sage (the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies), before moving towards a transitional phase or a second phase.
“And it would be irresponsible right now to start setting out in detail what proposals we might come up with in advance of having that advice from Sage.”
Sir Keir insisted Labour was not asking for the lockdown to be lifted or demanding a timeframe for its relaxation, telling Mr Raab: “We support the government on lockdown.”
But he accused ministers of failing to be open with the public on what comes next and called on Raab to say when the government will publish an exit strategy.
He said: “France, Germany, Spain, Belgium, New Zealand, Australia, Scotland and Wales have all published exit plans of one sort or another... If you look at those plans, as he’s done and I’ve done, it’s clear that there are common issues such as schools reopening, business sectors reopening.
“These are the issues that, if he wants me to put them on the table, I absolutely will.”
He added: “Delay risks not only falling behind other countries, but also the successful four-nation approach so far.”
Mr Raab responded: “The Scottish government has not set out an exit strategy. I read through very carefully their 25-page document, it was eminently sensible and it was grounded in the five tests that I set out on 16 April.”